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A College President Who Isn't Afraid to Get Chalk on His Hands

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They tell you that you should not count on your fingers,” Ben Alexander says, pausing to look out at his remedial Math 101 class at Chicago State University. “Well, I’m the president of this university and I say you can. You can do anything you want—as long as it helps you learn.”

Alexander, 54, is nothing if not pragmatic. In little more than two years as head of Chicago State—his first college administrative job—he has turned it from a floundering school whose accreditation was in danger to one that is earning respect from the academic community as well as from its neighbors on the city’s South Side. And he has maintained the black-to-white ratio of the student body at about 2 to 1, checking a trend that seemed certain to turn Chicago State into an all-black university.

“Some blacks came in when I first took over,” Alexander recalls, “and said, ‘We’re sorry that Chicago State now has a black president.’ They said that if they had come in to see the last president [who was white] and jumped on the table and used a lot of four-letter words, he would have given them anything they wanted. I won’t. I told them, ‘He loved you but I love you more.’ ”

The seventh of eight children, Alexander grew up in Roberta, Ga. and Cincinnati, “so poor other poor people called us poor.” But he and his siblings learned their mother’s lesson: “Education is power.” All six who survived to adulthood attended college and three graduated. Ben worked his way through a chemistry degree at the University of Cincinnati and earned his Ph.D. at Georgetown.

He has tried to instill a similar respect for education at Chicago State which has 6,600 students, many of them well past the normal college age. When he took over—after spending 27 years as a chemist and administrator with federal agencies—he expelled 130 students and put another 1,000 on academic probation. He also reinstated the “F.” “It broke my heart to expel those students,” Alexander says. “But some of them had been at the university doing nothing for years.”

Alexander’s approach is not all hard-line, however. He has made a point of teaching remedial courses in math and science himself. “I heard some teachers say it was demeaning work,” he says. “But students at the lower level feel a little rejected. This way we show them that we care.”

Alexander is a man who believes in accentuating the positive. When he was courting his wife, Mary, he kept in mind advice from his father to “never let another person outpromise you” as he matched wits with another suitor. “He offered her one trip to Europe, so I offered her two,” he says. “We still haven’t gone, 32 years later, but it worked out all right.” Applying for the Chicago State job, Alexander impressed the trustees by his strong will when he vowed that as a Methodist teetotaler he would never serve a drink, even to the chairman of that board. Last year he persuaded President Ford to speak at commencement by sending him a petition signed by 5,000 students.

Alexander’s aggressive charm also seems to have worked with his students, many of whom are street-wise and unlikely to brook much nonsense. Says Carolyn Guthrie, 30, who is studying criminal justice and hopes to work with juvenile delinquents, “Dr. Alexander understands the difficulties we are running into. He comes down to your level. That makes me feel that maybe, sometime, I can be where he is.”